Senate Republicans, tired of playing by the Democratic script, are planning to flip the story line on their opponents — and they want to use the bill extending unemployment insurance to do it.
Angry after Majority Leader Harry Reid changed Senate rules last year to limit their procedural weapons, Republicans are taking a new approach. On Tuesday, six GOP senators voted with the Democratic caucus to proceed to debate on the bill, which would extend unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless for three months.
The move was a genuine surprise. And it floored Democrats.
"I guess being Irish, I'm always expecting the worst," said Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who sponsored the measure along with Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. "So yeah, I was surprised. But that might be more cultural than political."
Democrats expected Republicans to block the bill, fulfilling what aides have called Reid's "favorite narrative" about the GOP: that they're obstructionists.
Instead, Republicans have thrown the issue back to Reid, who must now facilitate a compromise process — including Republican amendments — if the bill is to win approval.
Just because six Republicans joined Democrats to let the bill proceed on Tuesday doesn't mean the extension is headed for passage later this week. In fact, a number of those Republicans have said they won't support it unless the measure is paid for. GOP lawmakers could force a second cloture vote and send the bill down — unless Reid gives them a reason not to.
"In a sense it's calling his bluff," said Sen. Dan Coats, the Indiana Republican who was among those who voted for cloture, to the surprise of many.
"This was a vote to move to debate, move to amendment," he said. "If Harry Reid wants to shut that down, start the New Year just like he ended the old year, then that's his choice."
The three-month extension was the Democrats' opening bid, with Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, saying they would support an extension only if it contained an offset. Democrats have long balked at paying for the federal program, arguing that it is an emergency measure that hasn't been paid for throughout much of its existence. They also argue it puts money directly into the economy.
"Certainly for this three months, this definitely should not be paid for," Reid said. "If they can come up with some — they, meaning the Republicans — something that's reasonable for a yearlong extension, we'll take a look at it."
Indeed, the conversation about an offset has begun, despite Democratic opposition.
Reid ruled out Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's opening offer, which paid for the extension by delaying the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate for one year. McConnell sought to get a vote on his amendment Tuesday, but Reid blocked it.
Now Senate Republicans are proposing a bevy of offsets and amendments — and calling on Reid to let them have a vote. GOP proposals are all over the place. One from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who voted for cloture, would pay for the benefits and roll back cuts to military pensions in the budget deal by requiring Social Security numbers for any children claimed for additional child tax credits.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, offered an amendment that includes a provision to exempt the long-term unemployed from Obamacare's individual mandate. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wants to tighten restrictions on people eligible for both unemployment and disability insurance.
Reid has signaled he may be open to allowing amendments, saying "we'll take a look if they have something that's serious."
But it is unclear what "something that's serious" may be. The opening lines from either side — an Obamacare-mandate delay from Republicans and closing tax loopholes from Democrats — are nonstarters. "Right now, everyone should understand, the low-hanging fruit is gone. We've scavenged every place we could go," Reid said.
Still, the debate is front and center. President Obama spoke in the East Room on Tuesday, calling on lawmakers to pass the Senate bill. And he has phoned lawmakers on the Hill, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who spoke with him about offsets and the need for a job-training component.
Collins, who voted for cloture, may withhold support for final passage sans an offset, she said. "It's understandably disturbing to many members of our caucus to violate the budget we just passed, so I think we need a concerted effort to find an offset, and that is underway," she said. "I've had conversations with a couple of Democrats about the desirability of a pay-for."
The Reed-Heller extension would apply retroactively to the 1.3 million who lost benefits Dec. 28. People qualify for the benefits once they exhaust state-based aid, which runs 26 weeks in most places. A yearlong extension would cost $25 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and despite the efforts of Democrats, didn't make it into the final budget deal. A three-month extension would cost about $6.5 billion.
"Certainly we have to be very careful with what we do," said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. "We don't want to take out of one hand and put it in the other."